Columbia and the Final Frontier

Part 2

Disclaimer: All opinions on this site and in each article are my own and do not represent the opinions of any person, entity, agency, institution unless stated otherwise.

After an accident like Columbia’s, there is something healthy about taking a look at what we’re doing and questioning its methods and its motivations. Still, my experience has been, especially when dealing with subjects surrounding flight, that the public tends to react violently. Had the Columbia Seven died in a bus accident on the way to the Cape or back home, we would probably see articles critical of putting them all on the same bus but not propose halting all motorized travel. Likewise, the press has not suggested halting all air travel because of the events of 9/11, even though the loss of life was significantly greater than the seven lost in the Columbia accident After each manned spacecraft loss, there have been typical issues raised by the press, and they have always surrounded an anguished and often angry look at whether human spaceflight is worth it. Generally, they say that it is not.

What is worth the risk of dying for? I’ve thought about that question a lot. My own life has been and continues to be full of risk, often more risk than taken by most individuals. When I was much younger, I’d rip around the countryside and sometimes down the streets of my old hometown at speeds up to 135 mph in a 325 horsepower , 390 cubic inch, 1970 AMX. I fly myself as a pilot in general aviation aircraft. I spent several years of my life flying in the backseat of an F-14. I like to hike alone in the backcountry of the desert southwest. I’ve helped capture and touched a mountain lion. I’ve seen a black bear and her cub from about 30 feet away. Each one of those activities held the potential for death or dying. But I did each one of them and continue to do them because they add something to my life, something that is valuable to me, something I would be poorer without.

I’m not one of those who absolutely worship manned spaceflight. There are some things about it I do love. But it is, ultimately, another human activity, a choice we make because we want to, because we believe in it in some sense or it holds something for us we feel is worth the risk.

Some folks believe that, ultimately, our explorations of space will save our species from ultimate destruction. Perhaps. I doubt seriously we will be spared the fate of every other species and would question the universe’s wisdom in allowing that to happen. We are arrogant and short-sighted enough. No need to let that propagate.

American society seems, to a large degree, to be driven by a need for technology and aggression. Better that we channel that into the exploration of space rather than into aggression against out neighbors. We will do one or the other. At least if we are pursuing the stars, we are bound to learn something a lot more useful than how to blow something up more efficiently. And maybe in the end we will get the big lesson: that there is no place like home, and we damn well better take care of it.

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